It is a strange thing when one person with a gun can so quickly kill so many people, terrorizing millions in the process. Violence is nothing new, but it is not as if a single person can eliminate a room full of people in thirty seconds with a sword.
We live in strange times, as they say, and you almost want a new revelation, a new scriptural text that will tell you exactly what to do in the face of this kind of violence, this truly senseless business of taking a gun and slaughtering faithful people as they gather for worship. The only word I know that comes close to capturing my horror and sadness is "evil."
I resonate with the nephew of one of those killed in the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin. When he heard of the shooting and the deaths, he told reporters, "It was like the heart just sat down."
I have written before of how to respond to tragedy. Sometimes, it feels like the heart just sat down.
And yet, the feeling is not enough for those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ, for as Paul says, there is a more excellent way. It is not enough to simply talk of these things, to simply feel heartbroken. When I hear of tragedy, I am tempted to retreat to inside myself. The world outside my body can seem so broken and complicated that I often feel as if I ought to just find the God that lives within me and worship that God. I feel as if I ought to sit in the comfortable reading chair in my study, reading books about how the God within me is mystically connected to the God within you, as if the reading is enough, as if in the reading I am honoring all God has for the world and for me.
I want, as always, to simply be in the presence of God without the distractions of the world, without the violence and heartbreak and unfinished business.
It is a funny thing, this inward turn. When all I do is try to honor the God within me without going beyond the reading and thinking and inward prayer, I find that I am not so much honoring God as honoring myself, for though I am certain that God lives within me, I am not as good at distinguishing God from my own desires as I would like. It is not long before I find myself worshiping a God who looks exactly like I do. While I quite like this God (I am fond of myself, after all), I am also quite certain that I am confusing my own desires for God's and there is perhaps no more dangerous instinct in all of creation.
I do not mean to disparage this inward turn. It is vital. But it is not enough, for while I can root out evil in myself, evil is greater than that which lies within me. There is evil in the world--there are shootings, and there is slavery, there is violence and poverty--and if all I do is sit in my comfortable red chair and read about such things, I am nothing but a roadblock to God's work for justice in the world. It is as if I acknowledge the presence of evil in the world and yet believe that there is nothing I can do but read about it. This kind of response does not do justice to God's goodness, nor God's pronouncement that creation is good.
The inward turn is vital, but it must be paired with an outward focus, for while I am gazing at my own navel, creation continues to hum, and God continues to call me outside of myself. When I face the world, I am forced to realize that perhaps my own biases are not God's biases and that I do not have a handle on Truth. When I am in community, I see that my own issues are reflected in others, such that I am not alone. I begin to see that there are problems greater than myself, there are places of deep need, there is a God who needs--needs!--me to get out of my chair and act.
We are called to be in relationship to others, to the world, to God, and not just in some ethereal sense. We are called to be in relationship in visceral way, in a way that has blood and dirt and disease, in a way that costs hard-earned money, in a way that hungers and thirsts for physical nourishment in addition to the bread of Heaven. We are called to defeat evil, not just despair over its presence.
So get to it. Go do the work of God. Share love. Work for justice. Go to the broken places. Send your money, but do not just send your money. Go and be there. Meet people who look different, who believe differently, who question your motives. Show so much love--real, tangible, heart-wrenching love--that your very face is transformed into that of Christ.
If this sounds difficult, well, it is, but when evil surfaces, we are called to do no less. To do otherwise is to admit that we are powerless in the face of evil--or worse, that God is--and this is a sure recipe for evil's triumph.